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The Viper
Author: J.R. Ward





1824 (Human Years)

Caldwell, New York

Kanemille, son of Ulyss the Elder, rode upon a fine steed through the moonlit forest, the shod hooves of his favorite stallion muffled by the layers of pine needles and fallen leaves. The chill of November had come unto the land, a promise of winter’s frosted embrace, and in truth, though the lower temperature complicated some manners of life and livelihood, he relished the change of season.

There was nothing he liked better than a warm hearth upon a cold night.

As he broke free of the tree line, his horse followed without direction the beaten path that skirted the meadow and approached the rear gardens of Kane’s manor house. Indeed, when he had crossed the ocean to settle here in the New World a mere year prior, he had not expected so much of the Old World to be found in his relocation. Yet from the Georgian-style home he inhabited, to its grounds and stables, to the very landscape of his property, he felt wonderfully at ease.

Then again, perhaps it was more being newly mated that gave him a glow of soul-deep comfort and an optimistic and kindly disposition to various and sundry.

Lo, his beloved leelan, Cordelhia, was a female of worth, and how lucky was he. And to think the mating had almost not occurred.

As was the proper fashion among families of the glymera, their union had been arranged, the pairing set up between her family here and what was left of his own back in the motherland. His aged aunt had functioned as his representative, and the bargain had been a right and proper one, struck with Cordelhia’s mahmen as her sire had gone unto the Fade the previous year. In exchange for Kane’s pledge to come across the ocean and proffer himself at the mating ceremony, he had been granted this grand estate, fully staffed and furnished, along with six fine carriage horses, four trotters, and a herd of dairy cows. There had also been a very sizable payment rendered in his name, one that provided an ample allowance for his new shellan and household.

When his aunt had presented the fruits of her negotiation unto him, his initial refusal had sent the elderly female into a flailing paroxysm. Part of his hard stance had been the fact that he had known aught of her plans for him. The other part had been a reticence to shackle himself into a loveless mating. Yet his aunt’s pleas from what had turned out to be her deathbed had been heart-wrenching. The last of the elder generation of the bloodline, she had feared she would not serve the vow she had made unto her sister to see Kanemille into a settled adulthood. This was the only way, she had maintained, and she was running out of time, given her declining health and very advanced age.

As if he could say no to that.

And then she had passed, going unto the Fade.

Her death had racked him with guilt, for surely the upset he had caused had hastened her departure, and after the mourning period, he had found her staff other positions, sold her assets which were now his, and come to the New World to fulfill her final wishes.

Whereupon so many blessings had found him, and all were unexpected.

From the moment the veil had been lifted from his beloved’s visage, he had fallen in love. Cordelhia was lovely as a Shakespeare rose upon the eyes, but it was her demure grace and modesty that truly struck him.

He had expected to have to endure his aunt’s last wish. Instead, he often found himself praying that she was watching down from the Fade, satisfied with her efforts and touched by his sincere gratitude for what he should have recognized all along as the right and proper course for his life.

Closing in on the stables, his horse let out a whinny, and as its mates answered from the paddock, Kane’s eyes went unto the glow of his manse. The welcoming yellow light of countless oil lamps streamed from out of the windowpanes on all floors, sunshine upon the frosted grounds.

His blood quickened upon the approach. His heart jumped. His soul smiled.

His dominant hand left the reins and double-checked that his saddlebag had held with constancy its contents.

His errand had been in service to a special request from his shellan. Of late, she had had trouble sleeping, and the sachet of lavender and herbs had been ordered by the village healer to help her rest more easily.

What a pleasure to do something for his female.

Traversing the rear stone wall of the gardens, he proceeded unto the stable. The horses were kept downwind of the manor, the architect of the estate having considered the prevailing wind direction as well as the natural buffers of a rise and fall of the terrain with regard to the placement. More whinnies percolated into the night, and beneath him, his steed began to prance.

Someone else was glad to return home.

The stable facility was open at both ends, and the oil lamps suspended down the center aisle of the stalls cast another lot of warm, inviting illumination. Pulling up on the reins, he dismounted as his stallion jogged in place and threw its head. With Kane’s boots on the ground, he drew the horse into the—

No stable hand came forth.

“Tomy?” he called out.

Though there was much noise about, the chuffing and stamping in the stalls a chorus with which he was well familiar, the lack of a response turned to silence the sounds.

“Tomy.” Wrapping the reins through an eyelet, Kane raised his voice. “Where are you…?”

He stopped. Looked over his shoulder. Sniffed the air.

A terrible feeling gathered within his ribs and he strode down the aisle.

The tack room was at the fore of the stable, and in addition to housing the saddles and bridles and other provisions of an equestrian nature, Tomy’s private subterranean quarters were entered through its narrow confines.

The door to the steps that descended into the earth was closed. Was the keeper of horses ill or injured?

Knocking upon the panels, Kane then wrenched them open. “Tomy?”

From the darkness below, there came no reply. There was no scent of occupation, either.

Forcing himself to remain calm, Kane strode away, passing by the saddles upon their posts, and the tendrils of leathers with their bits, and the wooden buckets. All was familiar, and yet he was abruptly lost.

At the head of the stables, he looked out to the manor house and took solace in how undisturbed it all appeared. Further, he reminded himself that there were countless reasons why a busy stable hand would be away from his position. A fence repair. A hay bale delivery. A coyote upon the fringes of the paddocks, requiring dispatch.

Whye’er would one be concerned?

Alas, he knew the answer to that. He had had so much good fortune e’er since he arrived in Caldwell. Too much. Surely the scale must be righted.

When the rest of the household was abed and asleep, that worry kept him awake—and now this. No Tomy. Which was unheard of.

Bracing his body, Kane forced himself not to run unto the manor, but rather course up the walking path as if his mind had not gone immediately, and perhaps with paranoia, to matters of calamity and death. On his approach, his eyes penetrated each window of his grand home and traversed its exterior expanse from footing to roofline, from cornerstone to opposite terminal. The formal structure was a sprawl of rooms, two wings flanking a generous central feature of three stories, and as the silk drapes had all been parted to let in the beauty of the moonlit night, he searched the interior for signs of proper disruption.

When there were no figures moving about at all, he reached to the small of his back. For personal protection, he carried always an ornate, bejeweled dagger, although as an aristocrat, he was not well trained with it.

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